Son Heung-Min is supposedly the definitive character actor. He slips effortlessly into the ensemble, sacrificing centre stage for the collective performance. He serves others, never himself. He’s Ken Jeong in a Tottenham Hotspur shirt. Give him a supporting role and he’ll steal every scene.
Just don’t make him the lead.
But this is wrong. He is Spurs’ leading man now, by form, by statistics, by talent, by any recent benchmark, he is the main man in North London and a candidate to be the English Premier League’s next player of the season. It’s only a stubbornly outdated perception – or cultural stereotype – that suggests otherwise.
Son is the quiet one. The Asian. The humble superstar from South Korea, forever gracious, dutiful and loyal. In his home country, there was a TV programme called Super Son Time, a selection of his finest matches. The programme was shown every night, ensuring a level of adulation beyond our comprehension. Back home, Son is omnipresent.
In London, he’s often invisible. Camera crews have followed him around his adopted city. He can walk around undisturbed, just another Asian face in a multicultural town, minding his business, even though Son is among the best in his business.
But the weird, fickle celebrification of elite football can obscure this fact. Fame can be a trick pulled off by lesser talents, a superficial mask to cover any shortcomings. And in Son’s case, his fame and form haven’t quite aligned, in England at least, for some time.
In the second half of last season, he scored 12 goals in his last 10 appearances, effectively determining the final destinations of the Golden Boot (which he shared with Mo Salah), Tottenham’s European trips (they returned to the Champions League) and the EPL title (he scored against Liverpool).
Indeed, on that fateful evening of May 7, the South Korean epitomised both his playing style and public persona. He arrived quietly in the box, undetected, and tucked away the first league goal scored against Liverpool in a month.
The title chasers’ momentum was halted, albeit briefly, but the 1-1 draw was enough. Another noisy, rambunctious lot had been unexpectedly silenced by the quiet one.
And again, the commentaries followed, calling on the Son Heung-Min Appreciation Society to shout a little louder for the underrated No.7, encouraging the South Korean to escape the shadow of the Great White Hope beside him at Tottenham.
But Son isn’t particularly underrated, he’s an Asian product of filial piety, raised not to bleat on about GOATs and individual honours, but to serve those around him, particularly those in need, like 29-year-old strikers toiling under the weight of being England’s latest saviour. Son and Harry Kane are exactly where their respective cultures want them to be.
Kane dominates the jingoistic British media and captures the myopic (and simplistic) ideals of a modern, native footballer, an old-school centre-forward to represent both club and country. He’s a product of his environment, certainly, but he also does his team-mate a huge favour, drawing fame’s unforgiving spotlight away from Son.
The South Korean’s amiable personality and background do the rest. In the British media, much was made of his father’s harsh appraisal of the forward’s achievements, suggesting his boy needed to find another “10 per cent” to be considered “world class”. As is often the case, Son Woong-Jung’s quote was taken out of context, but Koreans understood.
He was an Asian father keeping a successful son grounded. There is always more to come.
And there really could be. Son turned 30 last month, but he continues to find that extra “10 per cent”, season after season, refusing to accept the traditional, limited expectations placed upon Asian footballers. His relentless progress has essentially been a clandestine operation, a commando reaching the summit without anyone really noticing.
Just four goals in his debut season for Spurs led to a discussion among coaches that Son lacked the pedigree required. When he averaged 12 league goals a season over the next four years, his reputation improved. When he scored 17 in 37 games in the 2020-2021, he became essential. When 23 goals in 35 games earned him the Golden Boot last season, he became irreplaceable. His peak surely beckons this season.
And yet he remains undesirable, it seems, to superior suitors. In the transfer window, his name never featured among the usual suspects being dangled before the hungry eyes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and England’s big boys. To use a couple of high profile examples, does Son really have less to offer than Jack Grealish or Raheem Sterling?
But his refreshing eagerness to maintain a low profile – along with the British media’s obsession with Kane - makes the South Korean a fascinating anomaly, an impish genius hiding in plain sight.
What would be the current transfer value for an attacking footballer with no obvious weaknesses? Imagine he could shoot with either foot. He has the instincts of a back-post poacher and the elegance to curl one into the top corner. He assists, constantly, and tracks back to carry the ball out of defence. He hits wonderful passes, long or short, and keeps moving. He never stops moving, a metronome of wiry muscle and boundless energy.
Imagine all of these things and throw in a self-effacing character that deflects praise, rejects the grubbier, celebrity-soaked aspects of the game and just loves his football, for club and country. That’s it. That’s Son Heung-Min, a selfless, tireless and near faultless player that should be worth twice as much as Grealish, but will happily settle for more dignified accolades, such as Asian icon, Korean hero and all-round decent bloke.
He’s an everyman for everyone. And this season deserves to be the one that truly sets him apart, from Kane, from all others.
In November, he’ll head to the World Cup as captain of the highest-ranked South Korean side in years (currently 28th). He’s back in the Champions League with Tottenham and tasked with challenging the great EPL duopoly. Of all the contenders, Antonio Conte’s Spurs are the most likely to take on Liverpool and Manchester City, as long as Son stays fit.
The Son-Kane juggernaut continues to move through the gears and is a treat to behold - the most prolific attacking partnership in EPL history - but the superior footballer is Asia’s finest. This is going to be the season of Son. Watch him shine.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author. He has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and written 26 books.
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